The Greatest Benefit of Reading to Your Child May Surprise You
Much has been written about the myriad benefits of parents reading to their children. Research shows that it encourages a child’s cognitive development, improves language skills and academic performance, and aids in emotional attachment. Babies can benefit from an early introduction to books, and even older children profit from continued parental involvement in reading. This is all good news of course, but most parents know this.
What is not often pointed out, however, is how the parent benefits in this scenario, and I think it is a valuable angle to consider. While I am thrilled that my children’s lives have been enriched by our reading together, I have been even more surprised and delighted to discover just how much I have gained from this experience as a mom. My reading journey with my kids has been the greatest of joys, and it has been over twenty years in the making.
My children are adults now: ages 23, 21, and 19. They have been surrounded by books from the moment they entered the world. My husband and I both have parents who are readers, and they passed that love down to us. When we started our own family, it was natural to share reading with our kids.
We began, like many other parents, watching our babies happily gnawing and drooling on the chubby board versions of Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Then we moved on to the maddeningly repetitive toddler years, when I read The Rainbow Fish so many times I wanted to set fire to it just so they would have to choose some other book. I remember watching my husband fall asleep mid sentence while reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, lapsing into total gibberish as his head slumped to his chest. Our daughter just giggled and said, “Silly Daddy, that’s not how it goes!”
When my kids started reading on their own, their personalities shone through in their reading habits. My artsy-fartsy oldest child, who now at 23 will still immediately choose any book with an animal or dragon in it, was enchanted with Janelle Cannon’s splendidly illustrated Verdi and Stellaluna. My outgoing, irrepressible middle child was drawn to the equally spunky badger in A Birthday for Frances. My youngest, always destined to be a writer, often chose to read books “her way,” creating her own elaborate stories to go with the pictures in our books long after she could read on her own.
During the tween/teen years, the dynamic shifted, and my kids took the lead. They chose books for themselves, books I was unfamiliar with and would not have picked for myself. I stayed involved by reading some of the books they were assigned for school, and joined in when they found a new favorite. I read Eragon with my oldest, and we went to the movie premier together, which we both agreed was truly terrible, although the dragon was pretty cool. When my youngest became obsessed with Harry Potter and read the entire series one summer, I picked up Sorcerer’s Stone and read it with her.
Back when Twilight was the hot new thing, my middle school aged daughter wanted to read the series, but I worried she might be a little young for it. I decided to read ALL FOUR of the books ahead of her so I could be ready to discuss any issues she might need help navigating. I can’t remember if she was Team Edward or Team Jacob, but I was decidedly Team Thesaurus. By the time I finished I was just tired of hearing about how Edward was sparkling and smoldering all the time.
Now adults, they have all graduated high school and are in college and working actual jobs. And I am still reading with them. The nature of our reading relationship has changed again though, and it’s more amazing now than I could have ever imagined.
My youngest collects quotes and is thrilled to find a well-turned phrase or beautiful metaphor. She is also intrigued by an unreliable narrator or clever plot twist, and her favorite book now is Fight Club. When the new movie of It came out recently, she loved it and asked me if we had the book so she could read it. I was exactly her age when I read It myself back in college, and I was ecstatic to buy a copy for her so she could have her own.
My middle child, a college student, regularly texts me quotes from what she’s reading in and out of class. When she took a British literature class last year, she couldn’t wait to discuss some C.S. Lewis essays we both enjoyed. When I needed a poetry recommendation for a reading challenge, she loaned me her copy of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, which she just knew I would love. She was right; I did.
My oldest has stretched my reading more than anyone. I’ve never really been terribly fond of science fiction or fantasy, and they* adore it. But because of our years reading together, they have a sense for what I will like. They will hand pick titles for me that I almost always end up loving, and in doing so they have broadened my appreciation for genres I would probably never have explored on my own. We also both love audiobooks and regularly share good finds.
I suppose I thought reading with my children was something I was doing for them. But now it is clear that I am the one who has benefited the most. Personally, the best part of reading with my children when they were young has been seeing them all evolve into engaged, avid readers as adults. My life is infinitely better for it.
So let me encourage you young parents out there. To the exhausted mom who is reading The Cat in the Hat for the fourteenth time after a long work day. To the dad who gets up early on Saturday morning and heads with his kids to the library instead of playing golf. I salute you. Keep up the good work.
Because someday, after many years of your reading to them, they might start reading to you.
*My oldest child identifies as gender non-binary and prefers them/they pronouns.